The room smells of mould like damp towels. It’s a large room with chairs decked out in rows that arc around a table and chair in the middle at the front. The Chairperson sits here waiting for the lunchtime gathering. Beside him sits a young man. He watches nervously as the room fills. Strangers shuffle in from the smoking yard by the kitchen, reluctant participants. They extinguish their cigarettes. Each row is staggered with individuals sat amongst spare seats. The solitary existence of an alcoholic. As the room fills the gathering becomes one, a crowd bound by a unity of purpose. A desire to stop drinking. This is the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The clock reaches one o’clock.
Thanks for coming says the Chair.
Can we have a moment’s silence for the alcoholic who stills suffers.
The room comes to a reverential hush.
Thank you, says the Chair.
I’d like to introduce a new member who will speak to us today about his experience, strength and hope.
The young man is wondering if he has the measure of the crowd, whether his words will strike a chord with their reasons for being here. He wants their acceptance, to be one of them. It’s his insecurity, his need to fit in. It speaks to his lack of faith in anything, the things that have built up over time, manifesting in this moment, sat in this chair, looking at a crowd, looking at him. Wondering if he couldn’t just get up and leave.
Twenty minutes later the crowd are clapping. They are smiling and their arms seems to embrace him as their hands meet, pulling him into their centre. His story is so familiar to himself, so small and trivial in its daily recurrence that he wonders what they have seen, what perhaps he may have said.
Like many alcoholics, he has dismissed the drudgery of the hangover, the smell of stale sweat and the headaches, the craving for fatty foods, the tiredness, the excuses for absenteeism, the broken promises, the stolen hours from work, the lost keys and arguments with strangers.
These are deficits on the ledger.
But against this lies exuberance. Freedom from all cares and responsibilities. Who wouldn’t countenance offsets of one against the other – just with the simplicity of taking that first drink.
He has spoken of a life filled with possibility and flawed moments.
The missed appointments, the presumption of job acceptance, the promise of a kiss – all blotted by drunkenness. The alcoholic blackout a blind feature for most of his many years of drinking – it’s consequences long since relegated to one of necessity to get to a familiar place.
He has spoken of the nagging question of authenticity – does he belong, does he qualify – as if somehow the crowd is marking his oratory with a scorecard, points out of 10 for wretchedness.
He speaks of the assumption that he must only be an alcoholic if everything has been surrendered. He has some knowledge of people who arrive with stories of being in locked wards or incarcerated in their homes unable to face reality. He has heard others speak of needing that first drink at the end of the day, needing it more than anything so that nothing holds their imagination or gives them any sense of joy or peace than that first moment – even if they subsequently only drink a few glasses they are aware they have become a victim of the mental obsession with the first drink and it is crushing them.
He knows there are others who function at a high level who arrive at their place of work before colleagues but who drink furiously, often at lunch and then into the night, on their own or with others, it doesn’t matter how they do it or where it only matters what it does to the person themselves, how their drinking impacts on their life and on their mind, on their spirit, on their body, on their sense of what they may be and where they are.
He knows that alcohol can take everything from you and still seem to be your friend.
He speaks of its ability to holds you in its grasp as if the liquid can translate possibility and deliver on all those false promises and each time it fails to make good on those words, the last thing you remember is that any of life’s difficulties had anything to do with taking that first drink.
It is this story that he shares with the crowd.
It’s why they are clapping and want to shake his hand.
Because it’s their story.
For every one of them it’s their story and the reason they are clapping is because while they came here as strangers, they leave in the knowledge that they are united in common purpose.
And they know they are not alone.